Last week we looked at the little-discussed fact that Christopher Columbus was a successful navigator as much of foreign languages as of the uncharted expanses of the Atlantic. Today we’re going to take a look at a man who tackled the difficulties of a second language on his way to commanding one of the most important nations in the world and conquering half of Europe.
To his fellow Corsicans, Napoleon Bonaparte would have been known as Napolione Buonaparte. Though the name would later be francized, its “foreign” origin could never be completely concealed. When Napoleon was born on the island in 1769, it had been under French dominion for only a few short months. In the Treaty of Versailles of 1768, the Republic of Genoa had ceded the rights to the island to the Kingdom of France, but it was only in May of the following year that the French made good on their newly acquired rights by forcibly taking control of the island. This put an end to the Repubblica Corsa which since 1755 had been acting as a sovereign nation in defiance of its Genoese lords. This short-lived democracy was perhaps the first state formed under Enlightenment principles, emanating a modern constitution decades before the American and French revolutions. The language of this constitution? Italian.
Italian was considered the language of culture by Corsicans, and in fact the language that they spoke at that time and to a lesser extent still speak today is a dialect of Italian closely related to the Tuscan dialect. The Buonaparte family descended from Tuscan nobility, and like most other educated Corsicans Napoleon spoke both Corsican and Italian, the latter of which continued to be the official language of the island until it was banned in 1869 by none other than his nephew Napoleon III.
The fact that it was the son of a Corsican (just like his brother, the father of Napoleon’s heir was born in the Corsican capital of Ajaccio) to ban the use of Italian on the island demonstrates the complexity of the relationship which Corsicans had with language and the role it played in their position as French subjects. We know that Napoleon himself spoke with a heavy Corsican accent and had difficulties writing in French, and thus, Emperor or not, was probably perpetually considered a “foreigner.”
The French emperor was a foreigner in his own land as well; although during the French Revolution he had returned to his island home to combat alongside the Corsican nationalists (who were fighting neither for the French monarchy nor for the democracy which was to replace it, but rather for their own sovereignty), his return to the French Army later pitted him directly against another Corsican revolt. Nor was any love lost for Napoleon on foreign shores; English propaganda depicted the Emperor as being unusually short despite the fact that he stood at 5’6″, slightly taller than the average French man at the time, who came in at just under 5’5″. This propaganda has been effective over time; we still attribute the unusually aggressive behavior of men and women of short stature to the so-called Napoleonic complex.
No matter how tall he may have been, Napoleon was certainly graced with a strong, belligerent character which carried him far beyond the coasts of his remote island home. Along with any small-town complacency which he may have had growing up, Napoleon left both the Corsican and Italian languages behind in his quest for power. It is highly probable that he vigorously pursued fluency in the French language in the same way as he did all of his political and military goals, and even if he did speak with a thick accent it would be hard to argue that he didn’t achieve the basic goal of effective communication in his acquired language.